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AT 84, South African-born master jazz clarinetist and poet Harold Rubin displays boundless energy and an irrepressible zest for his craft..(Photo by: NIKOLAUS BECKER)
Harold Rubin is still going with the flow
The South African-born octogenarian clarinetist’s contribution to the freer side of Israeli jazz will be saluted at this week’s Jerusalem Jazz Fest
As we all know, the Israeli jazz scene has been in extremely rude health for over 20 years now. Local schools, such as the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim, ensure that teenagers get a good initiation into the mysteries of jazz. Then, after they leave the army, the older and wiser but still budding jazz musicians can take their craft several steps further by attending college level institutions such as the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, or the Stricker School. Many subsequently head for the States and elsewhere, and Israelis now make up a substantial part of contemporary jazz goings on in the Big Apple and, to a lesser extent, in Europe.

But when Harold Rubin made aliya from his native South Africa, back in 1963, such jewels of musical education were not even a twinkle in the eyes of the first wave of jazz artists over here, such as pianist Danny Gottfried – later to initiate the still extant Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat – drummer Areleh Kaminsky and saxophonist Albert Piamenta. The nearest thing they had to a bone fide mentor was US saxman Mel Keller, who sowed the seeds of the entire Israeli jazz community when he made aliya in the 1950s.

Rubin, now 84, had led an adventurous musical life in South Africa, often mixing it with his black colleagues in defiance of the apartheid-era ban on such synergies. Curiously, Rubin made the sharp transition from swing-style jazz straight to avant garde, without dipping into the interim modern jazz idiom of bebop. Unfortunately, that meant that when he made it to the Promised Land he was bitterly disappointed to find there were no like-minded jazz artists with whom to perform, or even jam.

“It was really difficult,” Rubin recalls. “There was no one I could really play with here, back then.”

His clarinet, sadly, largely stayed at home for over a decade, before he finally came across a handful of locals who shared his passion for out-the-box sonic exploration, such as now 76-year-old musicologist, educator and keyboardist Yossi Mar-Haim. Rubin subsequently got up and running, and found a measure of commercial success, when he founded the Zaviyot jazz quartet, which put out records with the Jazzis Records label, including Unexpected which featured stellar American saxophonist Dave Liebman, and performed at festivals and clubs here and around Europe for a few years, until it eventually disbanded in 1989.

“When I came to Israel, I went to listen to all kinds of people, because I didn’t know anybody here,” Rubin notes. Kaminsky was one of the central figures of the incipient jazz scene here back in the Sixties and Seventies, and he and Rubin came across each other at some juncture. “We chatted and he said I should come over in the evening and we’d play together,” says Rubin. But the two had very different approaches to the jazz idiom. “We didn’t find a common language,” Rubin states, “but it was okay.” It was certainly a step up from what Rubin had mostly been doing since he made aliya, which was basically practicing on his own with only the occasional foray to a music venue in the hope of finally finding a kindred creative spirit.

It is safe to say that the Israeli avant garde jazz scene would have been a very different, and probably more diminutive, kettle of fish without Rubin. The retired architect’s contribution to the freer side of Israeli jazz endeavor will be duly noted, and saluted, at this year’s Jerusalem Jazz Festival (December 14-16). On December 15 the Surrealism Gallery of the Israel Museum – a definitively apt setting for the gig – will resound to the unfettered vibes of Rubin’s clarinet, with a veritable who’s who of the leading members of free improv community in tow, such as saxophonist Assif Tsahar and pianist Daniel Sarid – who also run the Levontin 7 venue in Tel Aviv – Mar-Haim, seasoned saxman Albert Beger, pianist Maya Dunietz and former Zaviyot bassist Mark Smulian. The tribute event will also feature video clips, and Rubin, who is also an accomplished painter, will regale the audience with readings of some of his own poetry.

After the initial disappointment of the Israeli chapter of his musical progression Rubin gradually began to expand his collaborative domain, becoming a mainstay of the Hagadah Hasmalit (Left Bank) alternative cultural venue in Tel Aviv through the 1990s, and the early part of the current millennium. He also struck up fruitful working relationships with the likes of Tunisian-born bassist Jean Claude Jones who himself had made the switch from straight ahead jazz to free improv. Jones also put together the Kadima Collective Recordings label, and he produced and released a bunch of discs with Rubin front and center, such as Muse & Music which came out in 2005 and featured Jones on electro acoustic bass and live electronics, and the delightfully entitled A Mono Musical Suite for Three Manic Musicians, which also came out in 2005 and, in addition to Rubin on clarinet, had Dunietz on piano and Yoni Silver on bass clarinet.

In addition to his emotive and intriguing instrumental work, Rubin also does a convincing turn at poetic declamation, a la Lawrence Olivier, such as on “Remember,” from 1996 release Blue Bag. For the occasion, Rubin put together a – for him – pretty sizeable cast of cohorts, with Assaf Sirkis on drums, Amit Carmeli on bass, Rafi Malkiel and Reut Regev sharing the trombone role, Gani Tamir on vocals and old pal Smulian in an appearance on bass guitar. It is, possibly, Rubin’s most wide-ranging release and his oratorical delivery on the aforesaid number, which referenced the Rabin assassination, is nothing short of spellbinding.

The establishment eventually got around to recognizing Rubin’s sterling efforts at pushing the jazzy envelope here, and the then 77-year-old clarinetist was presented with the 2008 Landau Prize in recognition of his contribution to the Israeli jazz scene. Rubin has carved a singular path over the past four decades or so here, and has not compromised on his artistic principles.

The Jerusalem Jazz Festival salute is nothing more than Rubin deserves, and those who prefer their improvisational fare to come from the wild and woolier side of the rhythmic and textural tracks should enjoy an evening to remember on December 15.

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